In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
FILM Review - THE ONES BELOW ***
Directed by David Farr. Starring Laura Birn, David Morrissey, Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore. UK, Thriller, 86 mins, cert 15.
Released in cinemas in the UK by Icon on the 11th March, 2016.
There's nothing particularly wrong with this low-key London-based psychological thriller. It's got a decent enough story to tell and it does it without much fuss or empty distraction, it's certainly well enough performed and put together with a satisfyingly bleak ending. But the only question that really stands out is "why is this in the cinema?": THE ONES BELOW looks and feels like a TV movie which would play quite happily on BBC2 just after the watershed on a Sunday night, but it never feels like a a theatrical film that could be playing next door to a Marvel superhero epic. The BBC Films logo has graced a lot of "proper" movies in recent years - SAVING MR BANKS, QUARTET, THE AWAKENING, to pick just three out of hundreds of titles - but to be honest this doesn't have any more of a cinema feel than any BBC peak-time thriller.
Essentially THE ONES BELOW is a four-hander between two couples, Kate and Justin (Clemence Poesy, Stephen Campbell Moore) and Teresa and Jon (Laura Birn, David Morrissey), both of whom are expecting, in apartments in the same building, specifically concerning the aftermath of a tragedy in which one of the babies is lost. It was clearly an accident, but once the other baby is born the young mother starts to suspect her former neighbours are not as friendly as they seem to be: they might be conspiring against her in acts of increasingly uncomfortable revenge - but is it all in her head or is there actually something to it?
THE ONES BELOW does at least resolve that question of whether the heroine's demons are real or imaginary, allowing for a satisfying downbeat conclusion to a quiet, understated, occasionally agreeably unsettling film. It's set firmly in an affluent middle-class London (someone actually says "We've run out of saffron!" while making dinner) and it gives no clear indication as to what the husbands actually do for a living except a vague mention that Jon is some kind of high-flying investor. Comparisons have been made (though not by me) to Roman Polanski, presumably for its leading lady going slowly mad in her apartment (REPULSION), for her increasing concerns over her pregnancy (ROSEMARY'S BABY) or simply for its two initially cordial sets of parents pitted against each other (CARNAGE).
It's a perfectly solid film - David Morrissey is watchable as ever - but it's mostly pretty unremarkable and doesn't have any big show-off setpieces to burst off the screen, content to start off as a personal drama before heading for restrained thriller territory. Granted, not everything has to be a white-knuckle multiplex spectacular, and THE ONES BELOW is a film that isn't even trying to be in that league, but a measure of zip would perhaps have helped and would have made it a more memorable movie if nothing else.